The 20 Most Iconic Book Covers Ever


[Editor’s note: While your Flavorwire editors take a much-needed holiday break, we’ll spend the next two weekends revisiting some of our most popular features of the year. This post was originally published September 3, 2011.] We recently read an article over at We Made This in which Nick Hornby writes that “the days of the iconic jacket illustration, the image that forever becomes associated with a much-loved novel, are nearly gone. The stakes are too high now.” If this is true, it’s just another way that advertising is ruining our lives, since one of the things we love best about the book as art object and experience is the way well-designed covers complement and enhance your reading, and the way they figure in your mind when you remember a book. To remember the good old days, and give a little nudge to the new, we’ve compiled a list of the 20 most iconic book covers ever (in our minds), all examples of amazing book cover design. Click through to see the cover art we chose, and let us know if we’ve missed any of your favorites in the comments.

Catch 22 , Joseph Heller, 1961. Cover design by Paul Bacon. As a designer, Bacon was known for pioneering the “Big Book Look,” characterized by the title and author’s name in large, strong print, accompanied by a small conceptual illustration.

The Great Gatsby , F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925. Francis Cugat, a relatively unknown artist at the time, was commissioned to design the cover of the novel while Fitzgerald was still working on it — when Fitzgerald saw the cover, finished before the novel, he liked it so well that he told his publisher that he had “written it into” the book. Hemingway, on the other hand, hated it.

Atlas Shrugged , Ayn Rand, 1957. Though some contemporary readers might connect the book with the image of a bronzed Atlas on his knees, we think the original is much more resonant.

A Clockwork Orange , Anthony Burgess, 1962. On the other hand, it is this 1972 iteration of Burgess’s classic novel, designed by David Pelham, that has truly become iconic. The dust jacket of the first edition, at least in our minds, leaves something to be desired.

The Catcher in the Rye , J.D. Salinger, 1951. Salinger was notoriously extremely picky about the art that would grace his novels. The only words that were to be allowed were the author’s name and the name of the book — no blurbs, no quotes, no autobiography — and he preferred simple designs, just lines and color (think Franny & Zooey ). It seems he liked this one, crazed carousel horse and all, though he notoriously refused to sign a copy for the designer, E. Michael Mitchell.

Invisible Man , Ralph Ellison, 1952. The artist, Edward McKnight Kauffer, was well-known for his avant-garde design and work creating posters (something like 140 of them) for the London Underground.

1984, George Orwell, 1949. There are so many covers for 1984 that it is a little strange to think of any one as the iconic version — in our heads, it’s more of an amalgamation, but this was the original, and one of the best.

To Kill a Mockingbird , Harper Lee, 1960. Designed by Shirley Smith, some have criticized this cover as being too simple. However, that hasn’t stopped it from gracing the dorm room walls of book nerds everywhere.

Brave New World , Aldous Huxley, 1932. There’s something about this earth-from-above cover, designed by Leslie Holland, that makes us more nervous than any of the others.

In Cold Blood , Truman Capote, 1966. When designer S. Neil Fujita first showed his bright red hatpin cover idea to Capote, the author had a quibble. “It can’t be red, because it wasn’t a new death, it didn’t just happen,” he complained. So Fujita changed the color to purple, and added a “funereal” black border, which pleased Capote immensely.

The Godfather , Mario Puzo, 1969. The design for this cover was also done by the inimitable S. Neil Fujita. His heavy, gothic typeface and puppeteer’s hand were carried over to the imagery for the film, so the look may be one of the most universally iconic on this list.

Death of a Salesman , Arthur Miller, 1949. The cover was designed by Social Realist painter Joseph Hirsch.

Lolita , Vladimir Nabokov, 1955. Though Lolita has appeared in hundreds of incarnations, this juicy 1973 cover (with that luscious, looping ‘L’) is probably the most beloved. Discounting those emblazoned with the heart shaped Kubrick glasses, of course.

On The Road , Jack Kerouac, 1957. This cover, from the first British edition, was designed by Len Deighton, who became a prodigious author in his own right. We just can’t get over all that text on the left: “Liquor, Girls, Fun, Jazz” — Would it be so wrong to add an “Oh my!”?

Psycho , Robert Bloch, 1959. Like The Godfather, Tony Palladino’s cover art for Psycho made it to the promotional material for the big-screen adaptation, which has added to its iconic status. However, we contend that the enormous, sideways, slashed-through title would have held up on its own, Hitchcock or no Hitchcock.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Ken Kesey, 1962. Another design by the prolific Paul Bacon, who is clearly playing with colors.

The Grapes of Wrath , John Steinbeck, 1939. Elmer Hader, who made a living illustrating and (in some cases) writing children’s books with his wife, Berta. Steinbeck fell in love with their 1939 tale Billy Butter , and asked that Hader design the cover for his next novel. Hader also eventually created the cover art for East of Eden (1952) and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961).

Rabbit, Run , John Updike, 1960. The fact that this cover is almost nausea-inducing hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the all-time classics.

Lord of the Flies , William Golding, 1954. We think it’s fair to say that most kids since the 1950’s have seen that jungle in their dreams at least once.

Fahrenheit 451 , Ray Bradbury, 1953. Designed by Joe Pernaciaro, this cover has never ceased to frighten us.